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November 28, 2011

Edwin Ritter — the Lost Airman of Buchenwald who admitted that he was helping the French Resistance

Filed under: Buchenwald, Germany, World War II — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:50 am

Previously, I blogged about Edwin Ritter, one of the Allied airmen who was imprisoned at the Buchenwald concentration camp for two months before being rescued by a German officer in the Luftwaffe (German air force). Ritter gave a statement on June 18, 1993 which his daughter recorded.  As far as I know, his statement has never been published.  Ritter’s daughter gave me permission to put it on my website. I was reluctant to do that because I found his story hard to believe. Now that a new documentary entitled Lost Airmen of Buchenwald has just been released, there is renewed interest in this subject, and I think that Edwin Ritter’s account of his experience in World War II needs to be told.  (Scroll down to near the bottom if you want to read about how Ritter was saved from certain death by a Luftwaffe officer.)

Ritter said in his statement that he parachuted out of his plane after it was hit by ground fire as he was flying over occupied France.  He discarded his parachute and found shelter for the night.  Early the next morning he heard a girl whistling Yankee Doodle.  He answered back by whistling the last half of the song.  Ritter said that he had been in a plane that was flying low enough to drop packages of food, weapons and supplies to “the Free French,” which was one of the French Resistance groups. Apparently the girl who rescued him was waiting for the drop and there was a prearranged signal for the Free French resistance group to make contact with any downed flyer. 

The leader of the French Resistance was Charles de Gaulle. He made his headquarters in Great Britain and the French Resistance, aka the French Underground, was aided and financed by the British.

By the time that the Allies were ready to invade Europe in June 1944, there were as many as 9 major resistance networks which were fighting as guerrillas against the German occupation of France.

The French resistance fighters blew up bridges, derailed trains, directed the British in the bombing of German troop trains, kidnapped and killed German army officers, and ambushed German troops. They took no prisoners, but rather killed any German soldiers who surrendered to them, sometimes mutilating their bodies for good measure. The Nazis referred to them as “terrorists.”

Edwin Ritter had been wounded when his plane was hit.  The girl from the French Resistance got a doctor who came out and patched up his wound with safety pins.  (The doctor had nothing else to close the wound with, so he used safety pins.)  Ritter was then taken into the mountains in southern France where he said that he “met up with Captain Malter, Andre Fleury and Col. McNichols.”  They asked him if he wanted to take the French Underground train to Spain, or stay with them and help them because the Allied invasion was going on and they needed extra help.  He stayed and volunteered to help for several weeks, which he said “put me in a category with my (American) government as an AWOL, missing in action.”

Ritter said that “the French Underground could not let the Americans know that I was with them for fear that the Germans might pick it up.”  He said that “the supply planes, that were supposed to have come over, changed the area to the northern part, supplying the Underground in and around Paris.”  Andre Fleury, Fred Martini and Ritter took a train to Paris, getting off at the Eiffel Tower station.  They crossed the river Seine “to the area where we were supposed to have met the rest of our group.”  They were dressed in civilian clothes and “were pretty well mixed with the French people and the way they looked.”  Ritter said that they were “led to a hotel…where we were supposed to stay because the Americans were on their way….but the Americans did not make it (to Paris) for another 25 days.”

Ritter was a German-American from Chicago. It is not clear to me whether or not he could speak German. The following is a direct quote from Ritter’s statement:

By that time, we were already sold out by the group of French Underground Double Agents to the Germans and the Gestapo came and got us and advised us that the war was over for us and we were going into prison camps.  They didn’t tell us much about it.  We were taken away in paddy wagons and taken over to Frenes (sic) Prison.  Frenes Prison is in Paris itself and one of the largest of its type with five cellar floors.  And we were put in there and I stupidly stuck to name, rank and serial number — and when they heard the (German) name Ritter, that’s all I needed.  I was immediately separated from the group and (was) asked questions.  They wanted to know what the hell I was doin’ in the American group. […]  And then he (the Gestapo man) said, “And being a German on top of it.  How could you do that to your Father’s country”  I said, “Very easily.”  He just whacked me on that. It was the last thing I remembered for some time, and I woke up in one of the cellars of the compound…

World War II  had started when France and Great Britain both declared war on Germany after Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Poland was conquered by September 28, 1939 with the help of the Soviet Union which invaded Poland from the other side on September 17, 1939.

After the conquest of Poland, there was a period called the “phony war,” or the “Sitzkrieg” when there were no further invasions by the Germans. Months later, when World War II started up again, Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, going around the Maginot Line, which the French had thought would protect them from an invasion. On June 17, 1940, Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the new prime minister of France, asked the Germans for surrender terms and an Armistice was signed on June 22, 1940. The French agreed to an immediate “cessation of fighting.”

According to the terms of the Armistice, the French were allowed to set up a puppet government at Vichy in the southern part of the country which the Germans did not occupy. The Vichy government openly collaborated with the Germans, even sending French Jews to Nazi concentration camps.

Charles de Gaulle, a tank corps officer in the French Army, refused to take part in the surrender of France; he fled to England where, on the eve of the French capitulation, he broadcast a message to the French people over the BBC on June 18, 1940. Charles de Gaulle’s historic speech rallied the French people and helped to start the French Resistance.

At the time of the French surrender, America was not yet involved in World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had no choice but to recognize Vichy France as the legitimate government. Winston Churchill refused to acknowledge Pétain’s government and recognized de Gaulle as the leader of the “Free French.”  Aided by the British, de Gaulle set up the Free French movement, based in London.

Cross of Lorraine in honor of French Resistance fighters who were sent to the Natzweiler concentration camp.

The photo above shows a Cross of Lorraine, which was the symbol of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI), one of the French resistance groups. This cross is located between two of the terraces where the prisoners barracks formerly stood in the Natzweiler concentration camp. Lorraine is a province in northern France that was annexed into the Greater German Reich after the surrender of France in June 1940.  The Cross of Lorraine was also adopted by the Free French movement as their symbol.

The French resistance was in direct violation of the Armistice signed by the French, which stipulated the following:

The French Government will forbid French citizens to fight against Germany in the service of States with which the German Reich is still at war. French citizens who violate this provision are to be treated by German troops as insurgents.

Since Great Britain was still at war with the German Reich, the collaboration of the French resistance with the British was a violation of the Armistice, as was the later collaboration of the partisans with American troops after the Normandy invasion. According to the Geneva Convention of 1929, the French resistance fighters were non-combatants who did not have the rights of Prisoners of War if they were captured.

In the summer of 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill established an intelligence organization called the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its purpose was to wage secret war on the continent, but with the defeat of France this intelligence network was all but destroyed. The SOE was revived and by November 1940, it was giving aid to the French resistance.

The FFI, or the Force Française d’Interior, also known as the “Fee Fee,” was also very active after the invasion at Normandy.  The British increased their arms drops after the invasion and a vast arsenal of weapons was stored on farms and in villages, ready to be handed out to the resistance fighters.

Ritter’s statement continues with this quote about what happened to him after he was sent to Fresnes prison:

I was tortured, beaten because of my (German) nationality and I wouldn’t tell ’em anything. And the only thing I had to prove that I was with the American Air Force was my dog tags because my clothing was civilian. They called me a liar and (said) I had killed some guy to get his dog tags and they didn’t believe that I was Ritter because I wasn’t even registered in the book.  This, of course, is another little chapter in my life.  In the United States, I trained at 90 Church Street in New York City, New York  as an OSS agent for the United States. 

The OSS was the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.  According to Wikipedia, “The OSS was formed in order to coordinate espionage activities behind enemy lines for the branches of the United States Armed Forces.”

So Ritter admitted in his statement that he had been trained for espionage activities behind enemy lines.  In other words, he was an illegal combatant who was in violation of the Geneva Convention and not entitled to be treated as a POW if captured.  This means that it was not a war crime for the Germans to send Ritter to Buchenwald.

In the days immediately following the Normandy invasion, the French Forces of the Interior became a French Army under the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) commanded by General Eisenhower, who unilaterally informed the Germans that the French resistance fighters were to be regarded as legal combatants.  That meant that everyone on the staff at Buchenwald or Natzweiler was a war criminal because Resistance fighters and the Allies who were aiding them now had the status of legal combatants.

Ritter’s statement is 26 pages long, and so far, I have only quoted from his statement as far as page 6. His description of Buchenwald is about the same as that of the 7 fliers who speak in the Lost Airmen of Buchenwald documentary, except that Ritter leaves out the cabbage worms in the soup and the sawdust in the bread. I will skip to page 11 where he describes how he was saved from execution at Buchenwald.

Buchenwald was one of the two camps which were predominantly camps for Resistance fighters; the other camp was Natzweiler in Alsace which is now in France, but it was in the Greater German Reich when it was a concentration camp.  The photo below shows the monument in honor of the Resistance fighters at Buchenwald.

Monument in honor of the Resistance fighters who were prisoners at Buchenwald

This quote is from page 11 of Ritter’s statement:

Well that day we woke….the next following day, we came out and they counted us early in the morning with snow on the ground — just a little bit.  And they told us that the first ten were going to be hung.  And we looked at him and we looked at each other, and we saw them marching ten other different people from the other area who were Canadians.  They put these ten Canadians up there on the rafters and they accused them of sabotage and murder and other situations as they went by.  And there was a well-speaking English German who read the convictions in English.  And as he completed all ten of  ’em he says “Now you will pay your supreme sacrifice for your country,” he says “because you are about to die.”  They pulled it and the bottom fell out from beneath the platform, and ten of them hung there, and we had to stand and watch them hang until sunset.

He said, “Next is the Americans.”  Then he came by and he called our names and I was on the first list.  He said, “You’ve got three days.”  And I said, well, this is gonna be it.  I’ve got three days to make peace.  And about that time, it so happened it fell on a weekend, and the commandant and the so-called medical doctor of Buchenwald and several others, were on a weekend pass when a lieutenant died in my arms, Jack Beck.   He died in my arms from malnutrition, infection and he just couldn’t hold on anymore…dysentery just claimed his body.  And we got a hold of the outside guard and we told him what happened.

And being that the German is a very regulated type of person, he went and got his sargeant (sic).  The sargeant says, “Well, there’s got to be a death certificate made out.  Does somebody know his name?”  I told him, yes, I did.  He says, “Good.” He says, “We’ll have a doctor here in a little while. You help the doctor make out the death certificate.”   And it so happened, approximately and hour later or so, this blue uniform walked in, a German captain.  He said he was the doctor, Luftwaffe, and he understood that there was a person who died here and had to have papers made out on the death certificate.

And why he (the Luftwaffe officer) didn’t know he was called and (Fred) Martini says, “Well because we’re all Americans and Canadians.”  He says, “You’ve got to be kiddin’.”  And he (Martini) says, “No.”  He (Martini) said, “That man is an American.  He’s a pilot, a P-47 pilot.” And he (the Luftwaffe doctor) said “You are all American?”  (We said) “Yes, we are all Americans. and we were tried and convicted in Frenes (sic) Prison and sent here for demise, for death.”  He said, “I don’t understand this. You are American flyers?”  “Yes, we are.”  He says, “Can you give me your name, rank and serial number.”

We all got up, Martini and five of us did, and we gave him our rank, name and serial number. And he says, “Don’t anybody move from this square.  Don’t anybody be talked out of leaving this area.”  He says, “I’ll post two men right now over at the gate.  Nobody comes in or out.”  So he went out and it was a couple hours later that we saw this big train.

Wait a minute.  Ritter and Martini and three other men were standing on the roll call square in front of the Buchenwald gate house.  Could they have seen a “big train” from there?  The photo below, taken in 1940, shows the gate house in the background and prisoners working on building railroad tracks.  So it was possible to see a train from inside the camp.

Prisoners at Buchenwald working to extend the railroad tracks up to the gate house

But why would a Luftwaffe doctor have been sent to Buchenwald?  It just so happens that the Luftwaffe maintained a small airfield near Weimar, which was 5 miles from Buchenwald.  This could have been the closest German doctor who could have signed a death certificate when the Buchenwald doctors were off duty on the weekend.

Ritter’s statement continues with this exact quote:

Now this was a (passenger) train — people cars, windows — pulling in backwards and loaded with soldiers. All had sub-machine guns, rifles, everything you could imagine.  On top, on the bottom, and on the side.  They pulled in there and he says, “We’re taking you out of there.”  And then he asked where the Canadians were. And we told him the Canadians were down around the corner in the next compound. And he says, “We’ll get you on there (sic) line of cars.”  He said, “Sit down in there and thank God,” he says, “we found you before they did anything worse.  “Well,” I said, “they killed ten of us already.” He said, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’.”  I said, “No. Ten Canadians were hung just three days ago.”  And he said, “God, what to hell is this all comin’ to?  What’s this all comin’ to?”  He said, “All right.  All of you load up in that train.”

According to information given by the survivors who spoke in the documentary Lost Airmen of Buchenwald, there were also 37 SOE agents imprisoned at Buchenwald and on September 9th, 16 of them had been hung with their hands bound and “wires placed around their neck, then hung from the meat hooks (in the crematorium) and strangled.”

Ritter explained, in his statement, that after he got on the train, the Germans went around the corner “to the other compound and got what was left of the Canadians.”  Ritter estimated that there were 113 Canadians still alive, who were taken out of Buchenwald on another train. (There were 165 airmen still alive when the Luftwaffe officer came to Buchenwald; there were 157 on the second train, so there must have been 8 airmen taken on the passenger train.) He said that “Some (of the Canadians) died in a raid by the American bombing raid — on a factory next to  Buchenwald.”  Ritter said in his statement “Bombs comin’ down and they weren’t but half a block away from us.”  (Of course, the American bomber pilots, who bombed the camp, had no way of knowing that they would be killing Allied prisoners. Their mission was to bomb factories.)

What I have written was contained on the first tape that Ritter made, which was transcribed by his daughter.  Before I read Ritter’s statement, I had heard that it was a Luftwaffe General who took the prisoners out of Buchenwald.  Maybe the General showed up later after the Luftwaffe doctor, who spoke like an American, got the first Americans out of the camp.  I will blog about what Ritter said on the second tape another day.

The seven surviving Lost Airmen who are featured in the documentary Lost Airmen of Buchenwald were falsely labeled as “terrorists” by the Germans because they hiding with the French Resistance.

This quote is from an interview with Mike Dorsey, the producer and director of the documentary:

These guys (in the film) were airmen that had been shot down. They were all hiding with the French Resistance. The Germans claimed they should have turned themselves in as soon as they crashed, but since they were hiding with the resistance, they were labeled saboteurs and terrorists and were treated the same way they would have treated a commando who purposely dropped in behind enemy lines. It’s because they were caught by the Gestapo and not by the regular military that that happened.

Ritter was not dropped in behind enemy lines as a commando.  He was in a plane that was dropping supplies to the French Resistance when he had to bail out because he was wounded when his plane was hit.  The plane made it back to the base in England.

This quote from Edwin Ritter’s statment explains how he bailed out after his plane was hit, and the plane then returned to England:

I was on my fifth mission at this time and I was in the southern part of France, and I had made my drop and we got hit by ground fire. And a lot of us….I got hit in the left foot with flack, a direct hit. And being a part of this so-called Carpetbagger group for Col. McNichols, I was told to bail out. And after the Captain saw that my leg was badly shot up, he got the bombardier — or should I say, there wasn’t a bombardier anymore — he was the aim dropper. Let’s put it that way.

And the navigator took me in and bodily slid me out of the front wheel so I could get down and parachute out.  I parachuted out and that lightened up the ship, I guess, a little bit. And what they did was discard quite a bit of the stuff and the captain was able to then, once again, on two engines get her into a little flight and made that trip home.  So the three of them, plus the unloaders, two unloaders in the back — the third one dead, of course — got back to England and that was the last I heard of them.


  1. I’m very proud to say Edwin Ritter was my grandfather. I love and miss him very much. I was very excited to read this article!

    Comment by Hilary Ritter — March 2, 2015 @ 8:23 pm

  2. “Ritter was not dropped in behind enemy lines as a commando. He was in a plane that was dropping supplies to the French Resistance when he had to bail out because he was wounded when his plane was hit. The plane made it back to the base in England.”

    I don’t get this. How did the plane make it back to the base in England if Ritter bailed out after his plane was hit?

    Comment by who+dares+wings — November 28, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

    • I have added another quote from Ritter’s statement which explains how he parachuted out and the plane made it back to England on two engines after it was hit.

      Comment by furtherglory — November 29, 2011 @ 6:02 am

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